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Straw Dogs - Criterion Edition

Review by: 
Head Cheeze
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Sam Peckinpah
Dustin Hoffman
Susan George
Bottom Line: 

Did she like it? That's the question that surrounded this film upon its release, and to this day raises much debate. The she I'm referring to is Amy Sumner (Susan George), and the it is one of the most notorious rape scenes ever filmed, not because it was explicit, overly violent, or particularly sadistic, but because for a split-second director Sam Peckinpah's camera zooms in on George's tortured facade and, in that split-second, we see a roll of the eyes and hear a light moan that could be interrupted as an orgasm. This scene got Straw Dogs, a very accomplished and involving thriller, banned in the U.K., and, to this day, raises the ire of many a feminist (and, knowing what I know about Peckinpah, that's probably something he'd take great pleasure in).
David (Hoffman) and Amy Sumner move to a rural English town where Amy had grown up. David, a mathematician, is excited about the prospect of life in this quiet town, but Amy seems less than happy to be home. When David hires a group of locals (including Amy's former beau) to do some work on the house, the group take advantage of his meek nature and this causes a strain between David and Amy. She accuses David of being less than a man, and David, senses that something may be brewing between Amy and her ex. Amy's flirting leads to the aforementioned rape scene in which her ex forces himself upon her.
After a brutal confrontation in town, David and Amy return home where they become caught in the middle of a lynch mob and a mentally challenged man who has been accused of murdering a little girl. David takes the man into his home to protect him from the mob, and before long, the group are under siege, with David fighting off the mob with his wits to protect his wife, the stranger, and his home.
Straw Dogs has long been a favorite of mine. At its core it's a simple siege tale, but Peckinpah's very understated approach during the film's slow and unnerving set-up gives Hoffman and George ample time to develop their characters enough that by the end we have a vested interest in their well-being. Hoffman's David is a twitchy, and arrogant little man who is at first somewhat despicable, but when his cerebral armor is shattered by the brawn of the village ruffians, he becomes a pathetic and sad figure. George has never been better , and you can sense her general disgust with her husband's non-confrontational nature as she witnesses his slow deterioration from practical know-it-all to befuddled victim.
Now, back to the question of whether or not Amy enjoyed the rape. It's obvious that Amy flirts with her ex as she grows more and more detached from her husband, and when the rape occurs, she fights until she seems to "give in", and that little glimpse of her face showing a hint of ecstasy does make it appear that, at least for a moment, Amy has found the masculinity her husband lacks in this assault. While this paints Peckinpah as a misogynist in the eyes of many filmgoers, to me it makes perfect sense in a film that is all about primal emotions and actions. David's struggle to be Alpha-Male, Amy's sudden need to feel protected, the village's de-evolution from civilized folks into a torch bearing mob, all of these themes share that primal bond, and to have Amy, someone lacking the machismo she craves, give in to, and ultimately find a dark and perverse enjoyment in forced sex from a former lover only seems fitting in this brutal film.
It's always exciting to see a film I love given the Criterion treatment. They've outdone themselves with their last batch of releases, with fabulous editions of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Killers, and Man Bites Dog all being given deluxe releases. Now, Sam Peckinpah's brilliant psychological drama, Straw Dogs has become a part of the collection, in a special 2 disc set that may very well be the best Criterion Edition DVD yet.
Disc one features a new high-definition digital transfer of the film, enhanced for widescreen televisions, and it looks brilliant. The Anchor Bay release of the film looked fantastic, but this new transfer is as solid, colourful, and crisp as they come, with virtually no artifacting or digital noise. The mono soundtrack has also been tweaked, and it seems to have cleaned up an issue with the dialogue. I've seen this film several times on DVD, VHS, and television, and no matter the format, the dialogue always sounded muddy and under mixed. If you'd rather focus on the score and sound effects those are presented in an isolated track as is a fascinating commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince, who is clearly the man to talk to if you want to talk Peckinpah. Price dissects the film, honing in on symbolism that had previously alluded me, and has a very enlightening take on the controversial rape scene that saw this film banned in the U.K..
Disc two is where things get meaty. First up, a great documentary entitled Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron. At just over 80 minutes, this feature length look at the man and his films leaves no stone unturned, and, for fans of Peckinpah, would be an essential purchase in and of itself. Truly excellent stuff.
Criterion has also included two new interviews with star Susan George and producer Daniel Melnick, as well as a series of typically acidic letters from Peckinpah to his many critics. The disc also boasts behind the scenes footage, something almost unheard of for a film made over 30 years ago.
One of the highlights of the disc is another documentary entitled On Location: Dustin Hoffman on the set of Straw Dogs. The short film first focuses on the star and his discussion of the acting craft, and then shifts gears toward the production of Straw Dogs itself. Hoffman's segments are very entertaining and it's a side of the actor you don't really see all that often.
Rounding out the package, Criterion includes the original theatrical and television trailers, as well as a hefty booklet featuring several essays about the film, its director, and their respective legacies.
It's very rare that a Criterion Edition film be anything less than excellent in both content and quality there-of, but here they have simply served up an embarrassment of riches. Even if you already own Straw Dogs on DVD, if you are even slightly enamored with the film and the work of its director and star, you simply cannot let this one pass you by.

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